CHAPEL HILL—After coasting through the first month of ACC play against inferior competition, the Blue Devils got a rude awakening against the first top-10 opponent they have faced since February.
No. 3 North Carolina won five singles matches in straight sets to beat No. 15 Duke 5-2 Wednesday afternoon indoors at the Cone-Kenfield Tennis Center, snapping the Blue Devils’ 13-match winning streak. Duke won the doubles point, but could not handle the Tar Heels’ top talent in singles.
“This was a match that we had to make them play and keep them on the court, and the longer this match went, I thought the better chances we would have to win,” Blue Devil head coach Jamie Ashworth said. “If you’re giving them a lot of free points and it’s quick, that’s not how we want to play. I think we just have to be a little tougher within the points and make them last longer.”
The day started out promising for Duke (17-4, 11-1 in the ACC), which rebounded in dramatic fashion from losing the doubles point Saturday against Syracuse.
The No. 45 tandem of Meible Chi and Kaitlyn McCarthy lost to the 35th-ranked team of Hayley Carter and Sara Daavettila on Court 1, but Chalena Scholl and Alyssa Smith won comfortably on Court 2.
Ellyse Hamlin and Samantha Harris then went to a tiebreak with the doubles point on the line and won their fifth straight match 7-6 (7-3), when Harris slammed a volley down the middle of the court to power the Blue Devils to a surprising lead. It was the first point North Carolina (25-2, 11-1) had conceded in the last five matches.
“I wish we could play doubles like that every time, with that kind of energy and emotion,” Ashworth said. “We talked before the doubles about just being disciplined and going after good targets and not trying to force stuff that wasn’t there, and I thought all three teams did a really good job with that today.”
Duke’s momentum briefly carried over into singles, with Harris challenging Carter—unbeaten and ranked No. 2 in the nation—in the early going on Court 1. Harris jumped out to a 4-1 lead in the first set, attacking aggressively on her serve and early in rallies to look for winners.
But that approach soon backfired with a few double faults and unforced errors, as Carter stormed back to win four straight games and eventually won 7-5, 6-3. The Tar Heels clinched the team victory when Harris double faulted to end the match.
The Blue Devils did not fare any better on most of the other courts. No. 36 Chi also briefly challenged No. 8 Daavettila before falling 7-5, 6-1, and No. 56 Scholl, Hamlin and Smith all lost by large margins. Scholl’s loss was her first in ACC play and snapped a 13-match winning streak.
Duke did not win more than three games in the second set of any of its five losses.
“On all the courts, UNC played the bigger points better than we did. They were a little bit more patient,” Ashworth said. “We tried to force shots into targets that weren’t good targets.”
The Blue Devils’ lone bright spot in singles came on Court 4, where McCarthy matched up against No. 55 Alexa Graham. McCarthy won the first set 6-3 and appeared on her way to a comfortable victory, serving with a 5-2 lead in the second set.
But Graham broke the sophomore twice in a row to pull even at five, and after McCarthy got a break back to take a 6-5 lead, she squandered her third straight chance to serve for the match.
“At 5-2, I think she just decided that she wasn’t going to give it up really easily,” McCarthy said. “I had to adjust my mindset to, ‘She’s not going to give this to me, and I have to go and take it from her.’.... It took me a little longer than I would have liked.”
With the team match already decided, both teams gathered beside the court to watch McCarthy’s tiebreaker in the second set as the individual matchup started to slip away. But the Cary, N.C., native recovered to win a close tiebreaker 8-6 and end the match on a high note.
McCarthy tied the school record for ACC singles wins in a season with a perfect 12-0 record, though there was not much competition for the record—the Blue Devils did not play at least 12 conference matches in a season until three years ago—and she rose to the occasion in her first match against a ranked opponent since Feb. 10, the last time she lost.
“I have actually played that girl a bunch of times in juniors, and I really wanted to beat her today,” McCarthy said. “Getting out there and getting that win personally, it’s a huge confidence builder.”
Heading into the final weekend of the regular season, Duke will still win a share of first place with wins against Louisville Friday and Sunday afternoon against No. 6 Georgia Tech—the only remaining unbeaten team in the ACC.